Dov Zeller

Narrative Movement in Sick Time


PC: Dov Zeller.

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“The history of walking goes back further than the history of human beings,” says Rebecca Solnit in the opening of Wanderlust, “but the history of walking as a conscious cultural act rather than a means to an end is only a few centuries old in Europe, and Rousseau stands at its beginning.” Solnit holds walking up as a mode of being uniquely connected to time and place and self. She sees it as a way of processing and piecing together—quilting—a wild fabric of awareness and understanding. Of becoming intimate with the self through the act of knowing the other, where in this case the other is landscape, cityscape, the sensory immersion of walking and also the abstraction of being absorbed by walking. When a body is moving across a landscape there is often a delving into reflection but also a kind of vanishing of the "I" into the immersive motion and sensory experience. Solnit is interested in how the rhythm and feel of feet (or wheels, in the case of wheelchairs) on the earth, this process of being both with the landscape and with the self, translates into literary and cultural reflection.

But what about the rhythm of being mobility limited and homebound? What about the rhythm of an intellectual life that must be lived in the darkness of a small and familiar space? As I lie here, listening to the hum of the refrigerator and the chipmunks scurrying through the walls of my bedroom, I mull over Solnit’s words and ask myself, has my capacity for deep thought changed or been diminished now that walking, or consistent movement of any kind outside puttering around the house, is no longer possible for me? And if not, has something replaced walking? Something that brings me to this mode of ambulatory thinking that Solnit reveres?

Or that has its own pacing and qualities?

As of late, perhaps because I am no longer able to walk, but still very interested in thinking and writing, I’ve been noticing the way walkers and walking and walks show up in books—and I’ve started seeking out books and essays about literary walkers. The other day I read a graphic biography about Virginia Woolf by Zena Alkayat. Even in this very short address of Woolf’s life and work, Alkayat talks of Woolf’s rambles through the city of London, how she relied on them for a kind of fulfillment and peace of mind. Alkayat mentions Woolf’s equal love of walking in more rustic and uncitified coastal settings. In Wanderlust Solnit says of Woolf as well as Joyce:

[They would], in trying to describe the workings of the mind, develop the style called stream of consciousness. In their novels Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway, the jumble of thoughts and recollections of their protagonists unfolds best during walks. This kind of unstructured, associative thinking is the kind most often connected to walking, and it suggests walking as not an analytical but an improvisational act. Rousseau’s Reveries are one of the first portraits of this relationship between thinking and talking.

I also recently read a graphic biography of Jane Austen by Alkayat—she’s working on a series of graphic bios of women artists—and she describes Austen “rambl[ing] along the cliffs” of Bath and, later in the book, “tak[ing] walks to nearby Alton” after her family moved to Chawton. I can’t help but think of the dramatic walks in Bath in Persuasion, sometimes social, sometimes as a way to try to escape the rigidly codified social world. And all the wonderful scenes in Pride and Prejudice in which Elizabeth Bennet proves and nourishes her independent spirit by walking boldly for long distances, enjoying the air and the landscapes (and getting her boots and the hem of her skirts muddy.)

And I recently read Walking New York by Stephen Miller, a whole book dedicated to literary walkers (all men except for Elizabeth Hardwick, who is in there not because she is a known New York City walker, but because she writes a lot of characters who are). He explores the ideas, understandings, and inspirations writers came to, as, by walking, they got to know the New York of their own understanding. And then how their understandings of New York influenced broader social and political ideas and policies.

“When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back,” Solnit says. “The more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for you when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities.”

Before I got sick, I loved walking and always felt, that by the act of walking, I became intimate with geography, architecture, moods of dawn and dusk and midday light. Walking was an immersive conversation with place and self. And histories drew nearer, too. For years I walked the same block in San Francisco and always noticed a wrought iron gate in front of an old house with a mogan dovid, or "Star of David" soldered into it. Finally one day I rang a random buzzer and an old woman came out. I asked her about the place and she invited me inside. “This,” she told me. “Was once one of the oldest synagogues in San Francisco. When this neighborhood was a Jewish neighborhood.” There was a historical mikvah in the building and she brought me to see it. We had to climb down a flight of stairs to access it. With its light blue tiles it looked like a tiny abandoned swimming pool. I’d spent so much time swimming in a pool with similar tiling, I could practically smell the chlorine.

I was floored. How did I not know any of this? How did I not know this had once been a Jewish neighborhood? How had I not considered how many populations might have come and gone from this very spot—how frequently the populations and personalities of a neighborhood could change.

It was then, from her, I learned, too, that Dolores Park, only a few blocks away in the direction of the Castro, had been a Native American burial ground and then a Jewish cemetery, all before it was a city park.

Soon after this discovery, a friend took me on a tour of another place I’d been frequenting, a landfill in the East Bay that had become a popular dog park. I took my dog there several times a week but always stayed close to the entrance. There was a whole history of artists, many of them homeless, who lived or worked there, my friend told me—painting on rocks, building sculptures out of found materials. Though I’d always liked the strange beauty of the place, I’d never ventured into the depths of it. My friend led me along the paths into the green and overgrown heart of the place and introduced me to giant, terrifying, almost ceremonial sculptures of people and creatures I couldn’t quite make out; smaller sculptures made of wood, of metal, of plastic; sad, but sometimes beautiful bits of scrap metal strewn here and there, twisted, rusting, but somehow even in their decay—or because of it— holding their own meaning; rocks painted in bright swirls of color, some with fully abstract designs, some with faces (though those, too, tended towards abstraction.) I started walking along these paths more often, noticing new tributaries and installations. Occasionally I would run into homeless people, and realizing how my presence was intruding on their privacy, I’d hurry away.

“Exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind,” Solnit says. “And walking travels both terrain….The random, the unscreened, allows you to find what you don’t know you are looking for, and you don’t know a place until it surprises you.” I began to find, at a certain point, that all places surprised me. Because they all shifted over time in a way that meant so much was lost, and yet, in this loss, there were important histories to be found. Voices to be listened for. In the quiet, sometimes, I thought I could hear voices of the past, or maybe it was just the wind skittering around the corners of a hollow building, seeking the whistle of branches or tinkle of leaves, frustrated by all the obstacles we’ve put in the way. “Walking is one way of maintaining a bulwark against this erosion of the mind,” Solnit goes on, “the body, the landscape, and the city, and every walker is a guard on patrol to protect the ineffable.” Is it an act of protection, or a form of listening? (And what do these acts have in common?)

During the months when I explored the landfill, I began to tell friends about the place, and invited them to come along with me, and we walked the trails. But I began to worry about the important privacies that sometimes develop in public spaces. Maybe walking creates a kind of privacy. Physical activity can be a shield, can make us less emotionally vulnerable. We take up space without dwelling on it (we are not dwelling). We forget to be self-conscious in the ways that we are when we are still. Even when in company, walking can offer a unique solitude and way of focusing. In Brain Pickings Weekly, Maria Popova often speaks of the importance of solitude for writers and artists. But it’s not just solitude Popova raises up. It’s solitude and movement. (A solitude generated by movement?) She sees walking as something that provides an internal as well as an external distance from everyday consciousness. Or, as Solnit puts it in Wanderlust, “Walking . . . is how the body measures itself against the earth.” And how a body feels the earth as a whole living, breathing, crackling, rumbling thing. And by being closer to the earth, feeling its rhythms, one not only gets distance from one’s more perpetual, routine thoughts, but gets closer to nature and to a sense of vast universal time.

Until a few years ago I walked every day. Walked, biked, swam. I was always moving, in urban spaces and green ones. After returning to the east coast from CA where I lived for a little over a decade, I loved falling into the depths of each season, sensing changes in the air, patterns in temperature and humidity and flora and fauna, monitoring the procession of one season into the next, breathing in the damp air of my favorite bike path’s unique summer microclimate, cool, autumnal, and rivery; taking in the sound of a certain river, its effervescent rush in summer, the moody crackle of winter. (Perhaps when it rushes its introspection is quite different from when it sits in its crackling solitude). I’ve begun to wonder whether movement in itself adds a kind of narrative flavor to days. I remember a professor in my MFA program used to say “it doesn’t matter what your characters do as long as they’re moving. Keep them in motion” and it’s okay for the plot to be still…Something along those lines. Because movement creates an ocean current that draws things along with it. And when things are drawn from one place to another, that’s a story. A kind of story. It’s a thing that readers are pulled into and along and through. They are traveling and so the narrative moves, too.

What kind of narrative movement is accorded the sick? And particularly the chronically sick who have an illness that precludes movement?

Four years ago I got a flu-like illness and never recovered. My health declined until I became profoundly disabled. Now I don’t walk. I watch the moon meander from one side of my house to the other. I watch the sun rise, and notice when it sets. The sunrise I can see from the bathroom or the front porch. The sunset from my room and the back entrance of my house. Mostly I sit and lie down and sense days coming in and out of view. I am still moving because I’m a little blip on a great, rotating sphere. But my little blip of a life has been altered. The flu-like illness developed over the course of a few months into a disabling case of ME/CFS, a chronic illness that has no cure. It transformed from one thing into another. I suppose that’s narrative movement.

The illness I have is poorly understood, and little respected. Before I got it, it never occurred to me to wonder whether or not an illness is worthy of respect. Now I have a whole new way of looking at illness, at doctors, at ideas we carry around about sickness and health and work and play and bodies. There is another point of movement. My ideas have moved. They are marching around looking for a home or at least a place to stay for the night. They are on an odyssey. Sadly, when doctors and other people in my life, health care providers, acquaintances, friends, insist this illness doesn’t exist, that it isn’t serious, the illness doesn’t listen. It won’t budge. I spend most of my days in bed. I may be sedentary, but life moves along. The earth turns. It rotates around the sun at a terrifying and yet barely detectable clip. Day and night trade places, handing off the baton to each other. They never seem to get tired of it, but I imagine some day they will.

Is this, is all of this enough narrative movement? Is this essay moving? Am I moving? Are you moving? Are you moved? I doubt it. But it’s not my job to move you. It’s my job to go somewhere and bring you along as far as you are willing to go. So, here you are. Here we are. And off we go?

Bittercress and Bloodroot

As far as walks and solitude go, I’m shit out of luck. But solitude itself…I have a solitude unlike any other. And I find ways to travel. I choose a city to go to and get online and look at photographs. I read and write and listen to audiobooks. I don’t walk among the beeches and birches and witch hazel on the river trail, but I read about trees communicating to each other through root and fungal networks. I may not go places but I hear from friends about their motion-filled lives and breathe into their stories. And what I’ve lost of fresh air, I’ve gained in perspective. Or, at least, it feels that way. But so many of the great thinkers and essayists talk about movement. And stillness. As if the two must go together. And when I was reading one article and then another, about Virginia Woolf, Kenneth Grahame, Thoreau, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Austen, the book How to be Alone by Sara Maitland…I began to wonder: without the fresh air of a newly leaving forest (leaves unfurling, miniature and bright, but fully formed) or the unfresh air of a city street or subway car, can I really be in tune with the workings of time?

In a way, being sick doesn’t really allow for either movement or stillness. I am always still, but I am also very sensitive to the movement of the world around me and without me, everything flashing by like flood waters as I hold onto what I can. It’s like a silent film in fast forward (or backward) around me. My roommate going to work and then coming home. Going to class, going to poetry readings, going for walks. My friends dropping in on their way to work and hurrying off. Rush hour traffic zipping by in the morning and the afternoon. The trucks that aren’t supposed to rumble down Lincoln street, a short cut to the factories a few blocks away, but rumble down Lincoln street anyway. It’s winter now. Morning. I’m in my room. Somewhere out there people are preparing for a day of school, or selling their wares, collecting trash or just settling in at their office jobs. Eating breakfast before their work day begins or just getting home from night shifts and perhaps already asleep in their beds. Out there, trees are breathing. The snowy, icy ground-cover groans under boots and paws (though not mine). Birds cry. Squirrels skitter. The fresh smell of pine dances along with a sharp, icy breeze and together they create a sensation of time and place, an emotional texture of winter.

It’s true, I don’t get to walk the bike path to the Connecticut river and catch the occasional otter fart (which happened once; I don’t know why I was so surprised), or poke around the cranberry bog near Side Hill Farm looking for birds. But I can hear birds sometimes, and squirrels. They like to hang out on the roof of the garage that’s right next to my bedroom and they make a racket. And chipmunks run through the walls of my room. For a while there was a rat visitor scuba diving in the toilet, breaking into the corn chips, taking one bite of each potato and throwing the rest of it on the floor. Knocking a little stack of empty bottles all over the kitchen in the middle of the night like a gremlin. There’s time well spent with the natural world. I can open my curtains when it’s not too bright and see maple trees lining the sidewalk. The wind howls when it gets restless and the branches wave around (some of the larger ones I wish were a bit farther from the roof of this house). I stand at the front or back door some mornings and take photos of the sun rising or the moon trotting along. It’s not that I don’t have contact with nature, but I can no longer go to a place that is far from the road. I’m no longer able to get to a place of being surrounded by trees and watching, as I walk, day in and day out, the succession of plants from late winter to late fall, from snowdrops to bloodroot to greater celandine to bittercress to tulips and violets and forsythia and so on and so forth. It’s still with me somehow. The feel of the rooty ground under my feet. The rush of the river, trying to free itself from ice and then, gradually, warming, flirting with the birches as the spring and summer rains tap on. Mostly the memories are faint and sweet like the kiss of woodsmoke rising up from somewhere far away but near enough to know. Once in a while I feel the great heaviness of loss. I can’t wander out of earshot of cars. I can’t breathe in the sap-scented forest air. Mostly, the loss is not something I think about. Strangely, the illness has changed the way my brain processes things and calls up memories. There is a kind of blankness in my mind that often makes it hard for me to remember clearly the things that I most loved. Or maybe I’ve worked so hard to stay in the moment, I’m no longer very good at living in the past or the future? That could be. Certainly my twenty-year practice of working on presence and acceptance have helped me. But I tend to think the blankness is one of fog and not one of enlightenment. Still, sometimes I think of it as a blessing. Many of my sick friends are haunted by the anguish of what they’ve lost while I can barely access it. As long as I am able to stay engaged in things that I enjoy, and keep my physical pain to a minimum, I am able to stay steady, to feel my own kind of contentment.

Other Ways of Walking

So why this emphasis on walking? I’m not the only sick writer around. Virginia Woolf was sick on and off. Darwin, Coleridge. But many of them still walked, which is part of their creativity or their literary identities. Consider the city walkers, the flâneurs, in Paris—Balzac, Benjamin; in London—Dickens, Waugh, Forster, Woolf, Jean Rhys, George Sand; in New York—Edith Wharton, Mark Twain, Henry James, James Baldwin, Frank O’Hara, Maira Kalman, Fran Lebowitz… For Lebowitz, it seems walking is being. It is an absorption of city-ness and city life. In a sense, as Rebecca Solnit says in Wanderlust, all of these walkers find some meeting of internal and external space to invent maps of possibility:

Walkers are 'practitioners of the city,' for the city is made to be walked. A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities. Just as language limits what can be said, architecture limits where one can walk, but the walker invents other ways to go.

Not everyone walks for the architectural poetry of it, but perhaps there is always an element of invention. Invention of self, invention of intimate geography. In “Walking While Black” by Garnette Cadogan, he wonderfully describes his adventures in walking in Kingston, Jamaica as a kid. And the horror of trying to take walks as a black person in New Orleans. There is a reason the majority of walkers and commonly referenced flâneurs in the U.S. and Europe are white. But literary wakers certainly not all white. Cadogan writes about walking as a young boy, and how, for him, it was less of a meditative exercise and more an active, vibrant, social, communal, and educational experience:

The streets of Kingston, Jamaica, in the 1980s were often terrifying…[But] I made friends with strangers and went from being a very shy and awkward kid to being an extroverted, awkward one. The beggar, the vendor, the poor laborer—those were experienced wanderers, and they became my nighttime instructors; they knew the streets and delivered lessons on how to navigate and enjoy them. I imagined myself as a Jamaican Tom Sawyer, one moment sauntering down the streets to pick low-hanging mangoes that I could reach from the sidewalk, another moment hanging outside a street party with battling sound systems, each armed with speakers piled to create skyscrapers of heavy bass. These streets weren’t frightening. They were full of adventure when they weren’t serene. There I’d join forces with a band of merry walkers, who’d miss the last bus by mere minutes, our feet still moving as we put out our thumbs to hitchhike to spots nearer home, making jokes as vehicle after vehicle raced past us.

For Cadogan and other who approach walking in this way, walking is engaging, stimulating, full of learning and wonder. For others it offers a more meditative frame of mind. It eases the soul so that existential pain loosens and becomes part of a moving story and not just a point of hurt to get lost in—stuck. The story of self becomes a thing of motion, of getting from one place to another. A story that expands with each observation, internal and external. “Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors,” Solnit says, “disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking, one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.” Whether meditative or energetic, walking helps us become a part of a more expansive world, helps us remember its depth and breadth. Walking has the potential to help us to commune beneficially with ourselves.

But this story leaves out those of us who are stuck in interior spaces. We exist, and we do reflect, and in our way, we move through landscapes. Is there some part of the thinking or writing process we cannot access because we can’t traverse a landscape while engaging in reflection? How do writers unable to wander outside commune with nature, time, the clockwork of the heavens and all those other things larger than us? How do we meditate in that writerly way without being in motion and connecting with universal feeling? Can we have that…that…what it is that solitary walkers have? That. And if not, what do we have in its place?

I’ve been in conversation with a lot of people with chronic, disabling illness, and I must say, there is a keen intelligence and an important measure of perspective that I’ve consistently found. I suppose we have outsiderness. We watch the movement of the world, and are aware of it in a way others are not. Maybe there was a time when I was, like Thomas Bernhard, uncomfortable in stillness.

The truth is that I am happy only when I am sitting in the car, between the place I have just left and the place I am driving to. I am happy only when I am traveling; when I arrive, no matter where, I am suddenly the unhappiest person imaginable. Basically I am one of those people who cannot bear to be anywhere and are happy only between places.

But now stillness is my ocean and I’ve learned how to swim in it. How to scuba dive and watch the coral reefs accumulate (or bleach and desist). How to notice things about human nature that, for better or worse, I’ve not been privy to before.

For the longest time I felt lonely, most so when in groups of people unless in the act of prayer and singing. Social anxiety made up a large portion of my daily life. I found myself in constant motion so as not to have to feel the weight of my own disconnect and loneliness, the existential pain of it all. It was exhausting, but also exhilarating. I loved moving from one thing to the next, never settling down. And I feared all that would catch up with me when I became still.

Now that, in essence, I have no choice but to be still, my fear of this quietude has left me. Well, maybe that’s going too far. Part of my peacefulness is likely the neurological injury that comes with this illness. And, to be clear, I am terrified of being alone for long periods of time, particularly during holidays when my friends are away and I know so many people are with loved ones and I have no access to more intimate community. But I don’t live in the kind of anxiety I used to. I enjoy a lot of the solitude (though I don’t like loneliness, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone). I continue to explore by reading and looking at photographs and watching documentaries. I learn, and the more I learn, the more curious I am. I wander through histories and listen more and more closely to the stories friends tell me. My sicker friends and weller ones. I search for meaning in everything except loneliness, and even sometimes in that. I accept isolation and I fight it not by moving away from it as quickly as I can, but by sitting with it and asking myself, “how can I breathe into it? How can I step through it? Is there a way to thrive here?”

Walking doesn’t have to be a physical act. It can, for those of us who can’t literally wheel ourselves along a path or put one foot in front of the other, be a spiritual, emotional, and intellectual one. And disability can present a solution to an existential crisis brought on (or clarified) by the disability itself. Maybe I go on my literary rambles by listening. By reading. (I am lucky to be able to read. Many with this illness cannot read). By breathing. (Most days I feel lucky to be able to do that, too.)

Without finding some way to manage and move through each day, I don’t see how survival would be possible for me. So maybe walking is necessary to life, to literature, but I would argue that for many of us it is a metaphorical walking, an amble through days. As I traverse them, I notice their textures, their angles of light. I notice the distance that grows between myself and others, and I notice when those distances lessen, and where intimacy happens, and why. I see the fear people have of me or of my stillness or my fate and I see that people become, in a way, more transparent to me, more simple, simple in their motivations and fears, but always complex in the fullness of their selfhood. Maybe, as Roald Dahl says, in being sick we become, at the very least, a tiny philosopher.

It’s likely I’ll never be the writer I would have been were I “musing among the vegetables” (What a lark! What a plunge!) But I am strolling now: with Popova, “surrendering to silence is how we befriend the very uncertainty that makes longing so unbearable”; with poor, restless Bernhard, “The truth is that I am happy only when I am sitting in the car, between the place I have just left and the place I am driving to”; with Lebowitz, “In New York, at a certain point, I felt I had the streets all to myself because I am walking down the street looking up” (also Lebowitz: “My idea of a great literary dinner party is Fran, eating alone, reading a book.”); with O’Hara, “I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store…”

I hop from word to word, a frog crossing a pond, finding places to land and rest, glancing around to take in the scenery, and moving forward into the next minute. The next hour. The next consideration. There you have it: narrative movement. Or, as Kalman says, “You see everything you need to see for a lifetime. Every emotion. Every condition. Every fashion. Every glory.”

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